In A Wiser Guy, Louis DiVita Details Mafia Family Life

Wiser Guy, by Louis DiVita, is the work of a man with a fascinating background. His grandfather was a high-ranking mobster who was associated with Stefano Magaddino, the Mafia overlord of Buffalo, New York, whose dominion extended into Canada.

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His brother, Benedetto Angelo, stayed in Niagara Falls,where he was partnered with Joseph DiCarlo.

Paolo "Paul" Palmeri moved to New Jersey and started enterprising with Willie Moretti, who is perhaps best known today for what he didn't do -- namely, he was not around to hunt down Vito Genovese after he sent a young shooter to kill Frank Costello. However, the boss of what became the Genovese crime family survived. Smart enough to retire, he lived out his life puttering around in his garden. Or did he? According to Louis DiVita it was none other than the Prime Minister himself who showed up at his grandmother's doorstep one day with an envelope. Invited inside, they shared a cup of coffee and Costello eventually with regret informed her that the "younger guys" no longer wanted to continue paying her.

It was 12 years after Paul Palmeri's death of natural causes.

A Wiser Guy is a brisk, leisurely read told in rough chronological order. DiVita uses one- and two-page chapters; each chapter is a standalone story. So it is easy to dip in and out of the book. Still it's well-paced, and there's no padding.

And there is a substantial story. The narrative tempo starts out gradually, with grand introductions to all the characters -- Louis's beloved family members. Slowly the story builds, revisiting earlier scenes and characters repeatedly as Louis analyzes them from different mindsets as he matures into manhood. We see the key characters in revealing situations -- Louis's powerful mobster grandfather and sweet, loving grandmother forming a "fireman's brigade" to douse the fire an inquisitive little Louie accidentally set. Then fast forward and we read about Uncle Ernie meeting a mob boss for dinner. Ernie has long since obtained the requisite viciousness of the career Mafioso when he's reportedly meeting with Gerardo "Jerry" Catena shortly before a supermarket executive is killed.

One of the subtexts of this book is personal history, which is something few generally need to be conscious of. However, this is a Mafia memoir, and if there is one institution with a long memory, it is the American Mafia, where orphaned sons kill the murderous fathers of others, thus perpetuating. That kind of thing doesn't reach into Louis's memoir, but he did play a dangerous game and was able to successfully extract himself from situations that very quickly could've grown untenable in a variety of ways.

"I had the best of both worlds," Louis said recently when discussing this.

He saw it, warts and all, from the very beginning, when the "guys" were earning fortunes for themselves off every illicit racket humanly possible. They shunned the media, and posed as wealthy investors or businessmen -- but were quite civic-minded as well. Paul Palmeri, for example, was always a leading pillar of the community.

Louis is shockingly honest in this book. He pulls no punches and is forever reminding his reader that "the life" is not something to be glorified.

"Uncle Ernie" clearly was a mentor to Louis, though Louis doesn't leave out the part where Uncle Ernie eventually grew too big for his britches and turned his back on his family. Ernie wound up in prison doing a long bid.

How long exactly, Louis doesn't say. He doesn't say a lot of things in this memoir.

As you read it you eventually come across photos of clipped out newspaper articles that he never addresses directly in the content. But if you were to read those news clippings, you'd see corroboration and other details that confirm what Louis writes about "legendary" mobsters of the past.

DiVita's memoir reads like a who's who of mobsters in the Garden State (New Jersey) from around the 1930s to roughly a decade ago. Think of it as a sort-of album of lavishly portrayed mobsters, some well known to this day. 

Paolo "Paul" Palmeri

When you read a "Mafia memoir," a sub-genre within the organized crime genre, one always wonders, how truthful is the writer? Is he over-hyping his connections? That's a fair question. Well, in Louis's case, the opposite is true. You have to wonder what he's omitting. As for himself, is he the man described in the book? Yes and no, meaning simply he's older and less interested in generating "supplemental income," as he calls it. A loaded term.

And he knows he's got a good thing going for him: he's a successful businessman who leaves the office and drives home.

Had he stayed in New Jersey, for example, at the very worst he'd be dead or in prison. And even in the best of circumstances, he points out several contradictions about the Mafia, which the public, with its endless fascination of the dark side, sucks up with a straw.

"With some of these guys you have to pay homage, and it's a pain in the ass," Louis said recently.

Louis was smart enough to do his own thing. He met people and did favors wherever he could.

It's plainly visible in the pages of his book that he could have just leaned on his Uncle Ernie his whole life "and eaten his scraps," as Louis said in conversation.

He probably would've been made had he gone that route (unless, of course, someone murdered him first). But by the time Uncle Ernie had phoned him about the union job, the one that I believe (and Louis confirmed) would've been his first step up that ladder to a crime family -- in this case, the Genovese crime family -- Louis had a good thing going. He was making money selling cars, wearing a suit to work, enjoying all the perks of a high-level executive lifestyle.

And the job that Uncle Ernie was offering?

"Well, nobody starts at the top," Louis said in one interview.

There is no one way into a crime family. 

Uncle Ernie was offering Louis a factory job, "salting and seeding," as noted in A Wiser Guy. From that position, which paid roughly half of what the besuited Louis earned on the car lot, he could've been on his way.

"If I did a good job recruiting and survived, I might get to be a business agent. No Thanks."

A previous story introduced Louis's grandfather, Paul Palmeri, and his grandfather's older brother, Benedetto Angelo. But you can Google either name and read all about them.

Louis's grandfather, Paul Palmeri, arrived in the USA on February 27,1909, while his grandfather's older brother, Benedetto Angelo, set foot in America years earlier, on September 7, 1906. Ironically enough, as this manifest reveals, Paul Palmeri, who traveled extensively, once again set sail for America on October 11, 1924 with another name that should be familiar to some of you:

If there is interest, I can ask Louis to answer some questions on here -- maybe do a live Q and A. But I'd need to check his interest and availability.... so first, does this interest any folks out there?